Seeing Red

I mentioned earlier this month Suspiria masterpiece that it is and superior to everything in Argento’s impressive (at least pre-1990s) career – is really not a great gateway to his opus, given how little resembles his early giallo works. Well, that’s what Deep Red steps in for. Not solely because it was his final word on the giallo, the last one he’d make before leaning more into supernatural subject matters with the likes of the Three Mothers trilogy and Phenomena, though the reasoning I’ll give is probably more symptomatic of how everything he throws into Deep Red feels like THE ultimate quintessence of the giallo formula and I don’t know if it had that weight in 1975 when it first released but it certainly did when I first watched it over 30 years after the fact and still retains it in my last viewings earlier this year (one in which I introduced it in its Italian cut for a friend and one in which I sampled its English cut hours before finalizing this post). If I were a cruel man, I’d probably claim this vibe of Argento’s giallo apogee is amplified by the fact that save for Opera, his late career attempts to recapture his salad days by returning to the giallo have been – by most accounts as I have only seen the forgettable 2009 film by that genre’s name with Adrien Brody – lamentable. But I am instead going with how of all the prime 60s-70s giallo pictures I have seen… Deep Red lands among my very favorite, doing everything you expect from that subgenre in such a perfect way.

But I digressed majorly from that secondary reason I would explain on Deep Red being someone’s best introduction to Argento’s work beyond it being among the best of the genre that most made his name. It is that Deep Red, in its placement as his final giallo, feels like a particular mid-transformation between that era of his career and his nonsensical supernatural tales that Suspiria would crystallize as his very next picture. Deep Red is certainly more visually grounded and narratively soluble as a picture than anything that would follow in Argento’s late 70s to 80s career with a clear understanding of plot, character, and motive, but it also throws itself wholly into the desire to look and act as baroque as possible and frankly that clarity of plot is perhaps something that is attained over several viewings rather than the one.

For in its function as mystery, Argento and co-writer Bernardino Zapponi throws out all the possible twists and diversions that can disorient the viewer from getting the right sense of things, beginning from before the credits even conclude as we are interrupted from the white lettering on black underscored by Goblin’s bouncy prog rock theme song (the first of their collaborations with Argento; I believe I’ve indicated in the Suspiria review that that film had one of my all-time favorite scores and you will excuse for indicating this film as well as their third work Tenebrae are not that far behind) to have a playful children’s la-la song butt in as a scream cuts through and we watch in a single static shot against a wall the shadow of somebody being stabbed to death, the bloody knife thrown on the tiled floor before us and a child’s dress shoes walking into the frame in view of the knife before it just goes right back to finishing the credits with that Goblin cue like nothing just happened. There will be a consistent sense of wrongness on that level throughout the atmosphere of Deep Red – not in the disregard for aesthetic logic in Suspiria‘s case, but because we don’t have all the pieces to the tale.

But I’ve gone this far without even elaborating on what a giallo is for anyone not as so informed on the Italian horror cinema, so I digress once more to provide that context. Giallos are basically murder mysteries in the narrative style of an Agatha Christie novel, vehicles for which we witness normally morally dubious men or beautiful women get killed by knifing or some other elaborate method as an outsider tries to hone in on who’s committing all these killings and why. They are essentially the precursor to the slasher movie of 1980s American and Canadian cinema (Deep Red comes in on the heels of one of the formative slasher pictures, 1974’s Black Christmas, and just before another one, 1978’s Halloween which openly owes an amount of its approach to Argento’s work*), with perhaps just a bit more respectability on account of being made for more money than the pocket change that many slashers are put together with and just having that European polish to its look and sound where slashers are happy to slum in poor video and sound quality all the time.

To return back to that premise of Deep Red and indicate what’s to be expected from a given slasher: once the interrupted credits complete, we are introduced to English jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings, who between this, Barbarella, and Blowup, certainly had a habit of showing up in the Italian cinema back in the Groovy London times) as he rehearses with a Turin-based band before berating them for being too perfect for a musical genre that needs to feel loose and disreputable. Unless you’re watching off of the English-language cut, in which case you jump right to the following scene where the camera moves past a red curtain to a large auditorium where his neighbor, the German psychic Helga Ulmann, is discussing and demonstrating her powers. Unfortunately, one of those demonstrations happens to be learning that one of her audience is a murderer, broadcasting it to the entire room as well as her knowledge that the murderer will kill again! Poor Helga ends up being next in line for that act as Marcus witnesses from streets below her being brutalized by meat cleaver and jagged window glass and takes it upon himself to find the responsible killer.

So pretty much par for the giallo course: an unknown murderer (right down to their leather gloves) on a spree, very much vivid gore effects (as should be the case for a movie with a title that has the word “red” in it; this is a particularly lavish-looking movie without being as striking as Suspiria or Opera. There is very appealing color, but save for the bloody red it is not as conspicuous.), and an outsider looking to find out what’s going on. But the devil is in the details when it comes to how Deep Red stands out: starting from that interruption in the credits (which is sadly less impactful in the English-cut than the Italian-cut, it’s real deep into the credits when it shows up for the latter) and moving on to how openly unpleasant Marcus is as a protagonist where he treats virtually everyone with irritability with an added dose of sexism towards his romantic foil, the unflappable reporter Gianni Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, who during this production started a 10-year relationship with Argento that produced the controversial actor Asia Argento). Then there’s the kills themselves which are more upsetting the more related to mundanities they are: an elevator turns into a steel trap, the corner of a shelf is used as a weapon, an ostensible drowning turns out to be a violent boiling where jump cuts force into stages of reddishness for the poor victim’s face. And there’s the aggressively modern design of the film: the exterior of Marcus and Helga’s apparent building features a bar that closely resembles Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks on one corner (to the point that it looks like the inhabitants are pantomimes performing stillness in shots) and a giant foreboding horizontal statue against a fountain on the other corner that lends to an excellent wide shot between Marcus and his drunk friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia).

But it’s specifically the energy of the movie that keeps whipping back and forth between languidness – watching Marcus chip through sheetrock for a particular scene, for example – and zaniness like Marcus’ nervous chemistry with both the laidback lead police detective Calcabrini (Eros Pagni) and with Gianni. The latter practically transforms this into a screwball romantic comedy everytime she arrives with wacky car rides, phone calls, and arm wrestling matches and for that and other reasons I find Gianni’s presence to be among the best unusual pleasures of this movie. Even one of the kills, a climactic one no less, accomplishes its function through a ridiculous set of slapstick contrivances but of course lands with an outrageous close-up of shocking gore effects. This energy never wavers in its sense of propulsiveness – even with the differences between the two cuts, where the Italian cut seems more willing to fill in the moments between moments while the English cut is more blunt-force – and feels like quite the perfect accompaniment to the wild rock stylizations of Goblin’s music.

While in the meantime, Argento sees fit to include the essential visual associations with the horror genre. Not just those aforementioned leather gloves or the image of a bloody knife up and down in the air or the regrettable appearance of animal torture (which, knowing the way Italian horror movies were made, I suspect are unsimulated and therefore unethical) or the camera moving with predatory smoothness that makes us recognize we are seeing from the killer’s eyes (phenomenally smooth for a movie that predates the invention of the Steadicam!), but the images we associate with horror movies in the broader sense: creepy dolls eventually broken up into porcelain machinery, a decrepit decomposed corpse hidden in the shadows, and those shadows belonging to a late haunted house where we watch from below opening gates as approach in the dead of night or step unwisely through a set of stairs with our way too courageous protagonist. The creepy visuals and the shocking kills together retain that grounded realism that distinguishes the picture from Suspiria and beyond in Argento’s career – a shambled mansion in cobwebs can exist in our world, the dolls are of course just presented in understandably prepared ways (one of them is hanging off the ceiling by string), we are meant to understand THAT is what scalding water does to a face and THAT is what a cleaver does to a torso – but they never stop feeling just a little wonky in how abrupt their arrivals are.

These are the things that stand out to me more than the pro forma plotting of Deep Red but of course that plotting is not something to scoff at. It is perhaps the most Hitchcockian in a very Hitchcockian genre – added moreso if you watch the English cut where you’d get that brief misdirect in terms of protagonist (one of the two elements I’d say the English cut has over my preferred Italian cut; the other is David Hemmings is an Englishman and is getting David Hemmings’ voice attached to his character) – with a very pivotal choice of sequence to continue hanging onto the further we get into the runtime, aligning us with the psychology of Marcus feeling like he just absolutely missed something and has to keep trying to visualize properly the moment he got mixed into Helga’s brutal killing. Basically through that setup, it delivers that same vibe that you forgot something very important and it is a niggling sensation that I hate to encounter in my day-to-day life but feel comforted by having a controlled context that delivers it. It is a move that could only possibly be done by filmmaking and more specifically by a confident casual arrangement of shots (credit to Franco Fraticelli on that merit) and the payoff is absolutely magnificent***. The clues are certainly given to us by Argento and Zapponi, but they’re banking on us not being able to catch them and the fact that I didn’t until the denouement is what makes Deep Red so addictively rewatchable as I go “ah that’s what that meant” and “oh that’s what we were supposed to be looking at” within the hallways and rooms and streets this explores.

So what to say of Deep Red at the end of this overlong review? It is what a movie looks like when it is at once typical and unorthodox. It is an effortlessly watchable thing that finds different methods to breeze through its thrills. It is the logical missing link between The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria, taking in the rational recognizability of the latter but imbuing hints of weirdness in tone, sound, and visuals to prime Argento up for the irrational in his future career. It is horrifying to watch and yet exciting to revisit. It is a set of contradictions and inexhaustible for that, a movie that has retained its space in my head ever since I first saw it and therefore ends up making the most of living in my mind over the many years to define itself as one of my favorite horror movies. It is – as I opened with – the last word on the central subgenre of Italian horror and a movie has to be a masterpiece to accomplish that.

*It also comes on the heels of fellow 1974 proto-slasher The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but as opposed to Black Christmas and Halloween, I can’t think of much that that movie shares with Deep Red. Maybe Bay of Blood but not Deep Red.**
**I have performed the disorienting act of giving a footnote within a footnote because I just figured maybe the one thing Deep Red and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have in common is revolving most of their climactic action on a one intimidating looking isolated house.
***In fact, in the earlier watch this year, I was introducing the movie to a friend and he had quickly caught on to the specific image without prompt and asked me to rewind, a request I declined. Sadly, he ended up falling asleep halfway through (we started the movie at 1 am), but I guess the movie wasn’t talking to him when the end credits opened with “YOU HAVE WATCHED DEEP RED“.

Suzy, Do You Know Anything About Witches?

I think I’ve been on record as feeling I did not exhaust Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural horror film, when I first reviewed it ’round these parts. I’m not sure it’s a movie that CAN be exhausted nor should it: it gains its power from the inability to truly qualify what exactly is going on, like the best horror movies. If you come in desiring to leave the film with a sense of normalcy, you are going to leave the movie massively disappointed. Even when you put yourself in the mindset of Italian cinema ’round the time of its release, its very storytelling is a disruption of the standard giallo that dominated the country’s horror cinema within the 1960s and ’70s (one of several reasons I don’t recommend this as someone’s first Dario Argento – there’s a whole third of his career we associate as emblematic of giallo that Suspiria truly refuses to resemble), teasing at belonging to this genre in its initial murder scene. Of course even before we watch poor Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) and the friend kind enough to take her in for the night succumb to what starts as a gruesome kniving that escalates to an elaborate multi-colored sunroof breaking into several beautiful shards below her body that lodge into the skull of that kind samaritan below the hanging corpse of Pat, there is a superimposition of green bright eyes hovering in the darkness that simply has no place in real-world logic that giallo abides by.

But I get ahead of myself here. Even before we are introduced to that elaborate apartment building of lines cutting through shades of red and mirrored staircases, flattened by the direct wide angle Luciano Tovali shoots from, we are introduced to our protagonist Suzy Bannon (or Benner if you watch it with Italian audio, though I am not inclined to do so with the way that I am now used to Jessica Harper’s voice with the character… Harper also being the actor who portrays Suzy on screen) the moment she arrives in Freiburg, Germany to attend the Tanz Dance Akademie overseen by Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (an unrecognizable Alida Valli, who has an vicious wide-eyed demeanor the whole time that gives further authoritarian vibe to her masculine suit and straight posture). And as Suzy heads towards the exit of the airport in the first few minutes, we have the soundtrack of a busy terminal cut off by the sliding doors opening as the tinkling opening music box notes of prog rock band Goblin’s famous theme (as part of one of the all-timer of horror movies scores) peeks its head in and then shuts off as the doors close. Once again in that anticipating early steadicam shot heading to the door from Suzy’s perspective, the doors open and we hear those notes continuing where they left off and then they cut off as the doors close. And then finally Suzy goes through that doorway and into a blasting rainy storm and there is no way back from there as she manages to grab a taxi and reach the school in question, only to be rejected by a frightened voice on the call box and witness Pat’s fleeing from the school to her doom.

It’s a cliché to say this, but to discuss Suspiria in terms of plotting is a futile game. I feel like I have finally gotten the hang of elements ’round my tenth watch of the film but that’s missing the forest for the trees as the experience of Suspiria is not to rationalize what is happening to Suzy and her classmate Sara (Stefania Casini) as she learns just how shifty and untrustworthy and dark the matrons of this school are, but to lose our footing the same way Suzy does. On the narrative level, Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi have no interest in coherence as they create an experience of associative horror clichés (the violent murders, a sequence of creepy maggots dropping, blood-based imagery, etc.) based partially on a nightmare Nicolodi had while the two of them were dating and partially on Thomas de Quincy’s poem Suspiria de Profundis. That nightmare atmosphere is exactly what comes through in the final film with the sort of momentum that makes the viewer feel like its slipping under and the abstraction of Argento and his crew’s imagery refuses to give us any anchor through which to catch ourselves and maintain some stability.

That’s the main thing: Argento and Nicolodi’s script is good enough for a pretext of Suzy losing her balance in all the horrors that leave her wide-eyed, but Argento’s direction is what takes Suspiria to another level of wrong-headedness. Nothing about it makes sense on a film vocabulary level: starting from the soundtrack, which has the particular benefit of the Italian film industry’s of soundtracking during that time, where the post-synced ADR means that the sound is always untethered from the image no matter how close it gets. Suspiria is perhaps the one foreign-language film that gains a lot from how the dubbing does not feel natural to what we’re seeing on-screen (and this is something retained in the Italian audio thankfully, because again that’s how Italian soundtracks were put together). And of course, Goblin’s iconic music is the cherry on top, punctuating the disorienting sound design with its loud pumping dread-filled rock scoring.

Following up on that, the cutting of the film is not as bravura as the sound: certainly the general structural shape of events put together does not lend itself to clarity, only insomuch as “this is happening and then this is happening” but it does take subtle rule-breaking of film editing vocabulary to constantly allow Suspiria as an object to be part of the unreliability: sequences where the eyelines will not match, the abruptness of one moment moving to the next particularly once we’ve lingered on a dead body long enough, the refusal to establish spatial clarity particularly when it comes to the relative position one character has with another predatory character. How else can we be shocked when a gloved hand enters the frame out of nowhere to take a life? Indeed, when we do have some kind of establishing into the killer’s point of view, that’s when Argento and Tovali employ the still-then-new Steadicam, giving its inhumanly smooth surveying of a space the same kind of silent purposefulness as Halloween would bring to its opening scene a year later or the eerie expectation of something horrible (such as in the early airport shot I mentioned above) that The Shining perfected 3 years later. It is those moments in which editor Franco Fraticelli makes patience insufferable, whereas once things get truly maddening, he turns things up and takes us aback (a moment where a man has his throat ripped out from an unexpected assailant being the best employment of what Fraticelli brings).

But most of all – More than the angles it chooses to dizzy us with even at its most sedate late exposition scene. More than the ways that the movie finds framings of Suzy that make her feel isolated or trapped in various ways, particularly with a utilisation of reflective surfaces that either box her face in an off-center corner or use the translucency to make her look faint and barely present in the shot like her own ghost. – it’s the colors. The colors of Suspiria are at once why I love Suspiria deeply enough to be one of my favorite movies and at the same time why it works impeccably as a confusing dive into a world separate from ours with zero explicability. It is not just that its selection of colors with which to light its subjects or shape the interiors it takes place in are not logical by our own means, what with greens and reds and blues coming in deep vibrant tones shaping characters in their presence or assaulting the visuals completely until it numbs you up. It’s that the colors also doesn’t make any sense by the logic of Suspiria‘s internal world, constantly feeling like part of what takes characters aback and shocks them until it feels like a language towards the viewer more than the character that something bad is about to go down. Not that the colors individually have a specific mood assigned to them, but the intensity of their appearance and strength of their hue (aided by the 3-strip Technicolor process which the movie was printed off of, but not shot) is an emotional thing to witness. Besides which it makes Suspiria just absolutely beautiful to look at, pleasurable to the eye in spite of how alarming and inexplicable it all is.

In these ways, Suspiria works as a befuddling experience, a movie that fundamentally refuses to work itself, only get close to a clear picture before breaking down again in maddening ways and throwing us in a whirlwind of sound and color (something it curiously shares with another horror movie released around the same time, Obayashi Nobuhiko’s House. I really should remind myself to one day double feature those two). And there is a cause and motivation behind Suzy’s haunting in the wall of the school, the school belongs to an evil coven of witches (a spoiler certainly, but one that seems to be common knowledge on the film. I did use THAT review title after all) so they’re breaking down reality and Suspiria as a film is not just a window but a doorway for us sitting in the middle of that breaking unreality up until its explosive climax. The images and moments are themselves upsetting in context like a horrible shot of a face pressed violently against a window, a close-up of a throat slit from a poor soul trapped in a room implausibly filled with razor wire, a dead body risen to giggle as it approaches us with a knife, etc. but the violence is only a punctuation to the movements in this symphony. Within the context of the film, they are just stops on a spiraling descent through a nightmare, “a bedtime story for the damned” I appropriated* in the last time I discussed Suspiria ’round these parts. And in that same review series, I closed discussing another favorite movie Blade Runner as one in which “my best dreams take place”. I open this loose review series in the same vein that Suspiria‘s world is where my most memorable nightmares slip into, dazzling and inhuman and altogether alienating.

*From Stephen King and Blue Öyster Cult, as I only quote from the best.

25 for 25 – A Bedtime Story for the Damned

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I once was under the impression that movies can only ever be about the atmosphere and the visuals and that’s how I came to easily love Suspiria, Dario Argento’s colorful horror fantasia that’s remained one of the most iconic pictures in horror, Italian cinema, and cinema in general. It’s so easy to be into the stylistic overload of the picture with its austere set design covered in brash big primary colors when story is not what you’re coming in for. It’s what made me so appalled by a friend in my dorm building responding “unfortunately” when I asked if he saw Suspiria a long time ago. My mind was blanked into how utterly anti-logic Suspiria as a film seemed to be, to the point of aggression. It never crossed my mind to sit and think about the story by Argento and his then-wife Daria Nicolodi that seems so very far away from reality. But then I look back on all of the movie’s plotting, the way its substance doesn’t seem existent, the way it all just seems like context for the painterly elegance of its visuals and window dressing and I think it’s enough to forgive Suspiria its narrative transgressions.

The last two times I actually watched Suspiria (which were within weeks of each other), I had by then realized that film was a marriage of both style and content together and I had to square this with the horror film. And I actually ended up loving it more than already loved it as one of my favorite movies. Hell, I’d actually put Suspiria into the ballpark of possibly the BEST horror movie I’ve seen (though I’d throw my favorite hat on Night of the Living Dead). I mean, around that point a line I had always dismissed as nonsense “I’m blind not deaf, you understand that?!” suddenly clicked with other lines of dialogue and revelations and the movie started making more sense as I moved along.

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It’s not that Suspiria doesn’t have its plot or that the plot doesn’t make sense, but two small keys about it that if you can’t meet halfway, you’re going to be hanging by the edge of its aesthetic: the first being that the movie is heightened into some sort of nightmare atmosphere provided by the colors and design and especially by the underlying sinister score by Italian prog band Goblin (with a theme song that sounds like 70-year-old Mike Patton trying to cough up cigarettes he accidentally swallowed while singing the theme to Rosemary’s Baby; I also think it’s the inspiration for Coheed and Cambria’s “Domino the Destitute“), all already dizzying and hypnotic and blanketing the viewer. But the script follows suit, where Argento claimed to be inspired by the essay on dreams by Thomas de Quincey that the film is named after “Suspiria de Profundis” and a dream itself by Nicolodi.

But then the second thing is that the entire plot seems seated exactly for children. We’re in a school – granted a ballet school, the Freiburg-based Tanz Dance Academy – all the women students have dialogue and moments that are immature like comparing names with “S” like snakes and sticking their tongues out. They are reactionary in a manner a child completely unable to comprehend what’s going on around them would be made uncomfortable and Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper), our lead who is just arriving to the school from New York one dark and stormy night, is utterly naive to everything supernatural going on around the school – from the sudden and violent death of a woman she saw rush away on her arrival screaming about secret irises (and hoo boy is it violent. Argento gets right to the visceral point killing two girls with one glass stone.) to the inconsistency of the school’s head instructor Tanner (Alida Valli) and headmistress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) in being able to accommodate a room for Suzy or not on her arrival. It’s all uncomfortable and shady but apparently not enough until the school begins invoking – SPOILERS for a movie where I honestly don’t feel that matters – witchcraft into this and causing her to weaken for some cultish reason involving the Greek witch Helena Markos. Bodies start happening and creepy crawly overtly horror movie things happen in bold form such as maggots falling on girls’ faces and shadows appearing in red light with creepy labored breathing.

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It’s really nothing more than a ghost and witches story (very notably not a giallo, since the story is not about a psycho killer in Agathe Christie vein but a  and its imagery is devoted heavily to that, but without its feet in the ground so that the viewer can be able to have a solid idea of what’s going until maybe later on when Udo Kier appears solely to give a great long exposition about the background of Markos in the movie’s only boring scene. I can see how some viewers would find such a whirlwind of a narrative to be off-putting or antagonistic, but I find Suspiria to be exciting and sensational for this reason. Nothing is scarier than an ability to tell what’s going on and slowly being able to stem out a true narrative after all is said and done suddenly stops me from dismissing the writing of Argento and Nicolodi as “utter nonsense”. Everything comes back and has a logical explanation. Not to mention that when your protagonist is a child, that atmosphere of not knowing what to do will make you feel within Suzy’s headspace more than the amount of nightmare imagery Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovolli could supply, which they do over and over framing Suzy trapped in glass mirrors and windows, the garish colors of blood and night blues, the skeletons and bugs, haggard skin, bats. At one point a whole room full of razor wire with a poor soul trapped inside of it suffering. It’s all like a live-action version of that skeleton room scene from The Shining if that scene didn’t fall flat on its face.

The movie is baroque and artful about its horror in a manner that feels so very different in manner from its comic book splashes of elements, but that’s kind of what makes Suspiria so powerful to me as a movie that helped me decide what I look for in movies. Sometimes, the style becomes the true substance of the movie and everything you can gain from the images and sound can prove to be a lot more filling to the experience than the dialogue that comes out of the characters, even if the characters are brashly victimized like Suzy and her best friend Sara (Stefania Casini) or as leeringly predatory like Blanc, with Valli’s wide eyes and grin, or Markos, a complete creature half made of shadows and sickly green skin once we meet her. Suspiria opened up doors for that to me and every time I watch it further doors are blasted open.

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